Low-tech Communications Projects

Shannon Perkins & Hiroko Muto

Project #1:
- Site Specific
- Distance Communications
- Technical Efficiency
- Aesthetic Balance
- and Unexpected Poetry

The Task: To arrange, without electronic technology, a means of communication across the university commons that is both efficient and esthetically appealing.

The Solution: When Hiroko and I first approached the assignment we naturally focused on the technology that would carry our messages. Out of hand we resolved to use a list of thirty messages to be carried via our system. Initially we wrestled with an awkward system of helium balloons on retractable lines to be hauled in and out to different heights where the relationship of the balloons to one another referred to a binary code which in turn referred to a message in our list of thirty. As we struggled with an elegant and manageable way of coping with our balloons we also sharpened the binary system to which the balloons related. Without having surveyed the test site we continued with increasingly involved means of handling our balloons. When finally we visited the test site the balloons seemed absurdly out of proportion to the location. Suddenly, we were confronted with an aesthetic problem - how to communicate across this distance without being too subtle or too grandiose. Something about this new consideration shifted our attention from the technological carrier to the content of that technology - language. The more interesting task now became how to achieve maximum communicative ability as simply as possible with the slightest of physical effort. We arrived at three conclusions: 1) to maintain the binary system we had already worked out as the code for our messages; 2) to use only simple arm gestures as the transport system of our code; and 3) to develop a kind of pidgin language that would be efficient yet highly flexible, allowing for a virtually unlimited if highly interpretive means of communication.

The advantages of the system are:

  1. The simple body gestures are in proportion to the site they are designed to communication across. They are clear and readable without being more effort than the location demands.

  2. As this system uses a six digit binary code to refer to entire words or concepts rather than referring to letters of an alphabet it is much faster than such a system which must build each word then string words together to construct a thought.

  3. As this system is designed to refer to its own idiosyncratic language it is incomparably more flexible than a system dedicated to a list of set messages.

  4. As the method of this language is an interpretation and approximation of English the messages are often very colorful and strangely poetic. In tests a few examples have been "small, small water" for "fog", and "machine of food shelter" for "refrigerator".

This final advantage should not be overlooked because it is perhaps in this that the system most finds itself as a work of artistic effort. This system is not meant to achieve what is generally considered to be concrete communication, indeed it is in its tenuous ability to communicate meaning at all that it is most sharp. It is in this regard that this system of communication points to the approximation of experience that is so casually disguised in our everyday language. Where our everyday language uses convention and tombs of word to narrow our experiences to that which can be conveyed the system arrived at by Hiroko and myself uses the imperative of interpretation and its own apparent awkwardness to reanimate our experiences into something living and previously unseen.

Lisa's and my (Brent William Brooks)

Dog Messaging

Laxmi,the Goddess of Low-Tech Communication

Our "problematique"for this assignment was to create a form of communication that would function over 600 yds. The only specification was that it could not use any technology beyond the turn of the century. We went with our first idea, which was to use my dog as a courier; so with pockets full of milk-bones we set out to convince Laxmi that this was a fun, new game.

We made 3 "training trips" to 3 different parks to sear this process into the dog's brain. The first and last expeditions went off without a hitch...the second trip was chaotic. The park we chose was crawling with other visiting dogs and their pet humans; so each time Laxmi tried diligently to perform her required task, she would be intercepted by a mob of over-friendly, leashless dogs, lookin' for a good time. The basic process we used was to attach (using duct tape) a film canister to Laxmi's harness as an air-tight, weather-proof message holder, and have her deliver each message on command (using the "cookie incentive" method). All in all, our training efforts worked fabulously thanks to the fact that Laxmi is an unusually smart and eager-to-please type dog.

The moment of truth came when Laxmi had to perform this sprint for the class (professor included) in a demonstration in the middle of the student union's grassy knoll area. There was lots of distracting noise and humans milling around the area. So on the first launch, she only made it half-way, due to interference by pesky, stray humans. She immediately returned to "mother ship" though, when she encountered this glitch, and that was the next best solution to successful delivery= "return to sender". On the second try, she ship" though, when she encountered this glitch, and that was the next best solution to successful delivery= "return to sender". On the second try, she delivered messages, to and fro, with blazing speed and success. Laxmi rules!

By Ernie Cajulao and Patrick Kelly

Bubba Express

When it positively, absolutely has to get there... eventually.

The purpose of this assignment was to devise a way for two people to develop a form of communication through low tech means. Patrick and I decided that we would use the "Carrier Pigeion" approach, and use his dog, Bubba, to send a message between the two of us.

Positioning himself in front of the San Francisco State University gym, and myself with Bubba, in front of the library, we would attempt to send each other a message. I attached the following letter to Bubba's collar:

"Hey Patrick,
When I listen to Michael Bolton, I go into epileptic seizures. What should I do???

Signaling to Patrick that we were ready, Patrick whistled and Bubba immediately ran across the Quad to his master. After reading and responding to the message, Patrick sent Bubba back to me. The only way Bubba would know to come to me was to have him see the stick I was holding (Bubba likes sticks). Unfortunately, he took a detour and had to make a pit stop behind some bushes. After shouting his name and waving a stick for a few minutes, he eventually made his way to me with Patrick's reply:

It is the voice of God speaking in tongues through you. Worship Michael Bolton.

This type of inefficient communication worked. I think that if Patrick and I had more time to work with Bubba, we would be able to send messages without Bubba taking a detour every time we send each other a message.

Written by Ernie Cajulao.

Henry Ostendorf and Cynthia

Pre-Electronic Communication Technology

Legends and myths from ancient cultures are often about the antics of messenger gods. While Hermes (Roman) and Mercury (Greek) are the best known messenger gods in Western cultures, there are many other messenger gods in native cultures around the world.

These myths typically explain the difficulty in using a person or animal to deliver a message. In many cases the message is never delivered due to unexpected circumstances or it is mis-communicated by the deliver either willfully or in error. Written messages delivered by person or animal typically fared better than messages given orally. This is due to the possibility of the messenger forgetting or embellishing a oral message.

Kat Kovacs and Jamie Anne Lopez

We executed an experiment in low-tech communication through the most ancient method of Greek society: a human messenger. The messages were successfully delivered. However, the whimsical nature of the messenger added to his short attention span illustrated the notion that all systems contain al element of variability that cannot always be accounted for. In addition, the impunity of the messenger's free will was overcome by a display of large sums of money at his destination. Larger amounts of money seemed to make the messenger move more quickly. Of course, had this insubordination occurred in Ancient Greece, he would have been summarily executed. See what happens when you educate the masses?

Oscar and Jenny

Body Posture Messenging

Oscar and Jenny used a system of approximately 30 symbols represented by whole body postures. These body symbols represented specific words or phrases such as, "I'm hungry", "Do you want to have lunch", "Maybe", "No", and "I'm tired".

Messages could be constructed into short sentences which were most effective at communicating immediate physical need, agreement, disagreement and other simple pre-determined short messages.

Although the message system was limited in terms of the number of messages it could send, within visual range, it was very effective--with virtually no miscommunications or unreceived messages. However, communication would be severely limited by great physical distances, visual impediments, or physical disabilities of any kind.

Jane, John & Jenny

Color Flags

Our communication system was based on a semaphore signaling pattern. We used batons of a specific color and shape which were held out at different angles from the senders body. Each letter in the alpha-numeric system was represented by a coded color and shape of baton held at a predefined angle. The sender had a set of letter codes and the receiver had a mirrored set of letter code descriptions used to decode the single-letter transmissions. Words and phrases were thus sent via letters. Although this messanging system takes some time (each letter of each word must be sent and decoded), it is very accurate and allows virtually any message to be sent.
Noise was accounted for, and a white flag was waved whenever a message was not received correctly. The message was then re-sent.
Redundancy was accounted for in that there were two receivers taking down each message, and they each had binoculars to heighten the strength of messages sent.

Jean and Chuck

We're still working on our description.

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